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Oregon lawmakers deserve a pay raise

Think Oregon legislators are paid fat salaries for their service? Think again. State senators and representatives receive a base annual salary of $32,839.

That’s barely more than a full-time worker making $15 an hour. Lawmakers do get $150 a day for food and lodging while the Legislature is in session, and $450 a month for expenses while performing official duties when the Legislature is not in session.

Senate Bill 1566, introduced this session, would increase lawmakers’ pay dramatically, to a base salary of about $57,000. The per diem and expense payments would remain the same. In addition, legislators would qualify for $1,000 a month for child care.

The new salary amount would be tied to the average wage for all Oregonians — $56,880, according to federal statistics. When combined with the per-diem payments, the total would be nearly $75,000 in odd-numbered years when the Legislature meets for more than five months.

The rationale for this is that legislators’ relatively meager pay makes it difficult to recruit candidates, and hard for those who do run to say in office once elected.

Oregon and many other states have a long tradition of “citizen legislators” — ordinary folks who work part-time making laws and return to their regular jobs the rest of the time. That made some sense when the Legislature met every other year and the duties of the office could be performed in a relatively short time.

Now, the reality is much different. Lawmakers are in session every year — five months in odd-numbered years and one month in even-numbered years. They are also required to attend “legislative days” on a regular basis, and some committees meet frequently during the year. Constituent services — helping people in their districts interact with government agencies — also take up considerable time.

The result is a Legislature made up of people who are more likely to be independently wealthy or retired than the population they serve. That’s not a recipe for truly representative government.

Legislators are free to work other jobs, if they can manage it, but that raises the possibility of conflicts of interest if a lawmaker were to vote on legislation that affected their employer or their business.

The measure has some bipartisan support, and the backing of a Portland business group.

The bill would cost money, of course — a similar measure introduced last year that would have meant slightly smaller raises was estimated to cost $4 million over 18 months. No cost estimate has been prepared for this year’s bill, but the base salary increase alone for 90 senators and representatives would total more than $4 million over a two-year budget period. It still would amount to little more than a rounding error in the state’s biennial budget of more than $25 billion.

Private sector employers understand that paying adequate compensation is essential if they want to attract the best employees. Legislators’ employers — the public — should understand that.